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There’s something the Spurs can gain from this season of losing

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Contending only teaches you how to win: losing is how you learn who you really are.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Last night broke me. Rest assured that when I make that statement I am in no way referring to my longstanding love of sports, nor my life-long fondness for the San Antonio Spurs, but rather for my ability to find a proper point of comparison for this article.

Comparison is fun. It’s something that we as a human race are perhaps even more fond of than the inherent desire to willfully misunderstand our fellow man. And this is doubly true when it comes to the world of sports. Almost every conversation regarding the sporting world revolves around analogues. Which player is faster? Which coach is smarter? Who is the greatest player of all time, and why is my favorite better than yours? Water cooler culture has been dictated by the depth and ferocity of these quandaries, and in the 21st century has found a transcendent new medium in Twitter, where debates rage endlessly though no one congregates by the 19 liter (5 gallon) water jugs.

I’m not entirely sure that this is a good thing. There was a time in my life when I assumed that human beings had a limit when it comes to debate, but time within the twittersphere has a way of changing people, or perhaps it merely brings something out that would otherwise lie dormant.

I’m as guilty as the next person. Just the other day I insinuated that Bryn Forbes was a Disney character that a twitter friend was planning on punching while on a Disney cruise. I then butted into an ongoing conversation in which I and another twitter compatriot declared the Houston Rockets to be the NBA equivalent of the Dallas Cowboys of the last 25 years. (That is to say: flashy, somewhat relevant, but ultimately incompetent when it really matters.)

What can I say? The online world is (now more than ever) a place of that feeds on outrage and exaggeration. The more you exaggerate and heighten the drama, the larger the audience. Twitter is the rightful home of the exclamation point, and I am but a humble fountain pen; my ink runneth over.

Truth be told, this is a manageable reality as long you can keep your head. But a firm anchor within the grasp of reality is no guarantee of rationality once anyone is within the pull of such an artificial landscape, and Friday night was no exception.

The entire game was an ugly affair to be sure. By the second quarter I had switched the game over to my phone in the hopes that reducing screen size would somehow lessen the eyesore of an equally inconsistent Nets team absolutely bludgeoning a reeling Spurs squad by as much as 33 points in the first half. But the only notable result from that move was that it made a bit harder to tell exactly who it was blowing defensive assignments on just about every possession, and that wasn’t exactly comforting.

Naturally, I took to twitter, publicly opining that perhaps the Spurs would be served to pick up another center. A few minutes later, rookie forward Luka Samanic made his NBA debut. Almost immediately I pulled the game back up on my television to watch the spindly young Croatian get to work, and as expected his game lacked the polish of an NBA starter.

Considering his age and lack of NBA playing time at that juncture it was hardly shocking. But as we learned last year in the debut of another promising Spurs rookie, Lonnie Walker, that sort of initial impression (unless you happen to be Tim Duncan) is rarely something that sticks. Moving smoothly for a player Luka’s size, it was clear there’s promise, masked by a lack of familiarity and the very clear presence of anxiety. Yet again I took to twitter to voice my self-important prognostications, but before I could even compose a message, I was struck by the wave of unpleasantness aimed at a twenty-year old NBA novice.

And it’s here where my search for a clear point of comparison falters. There can be no doubt that this (in spite of San Antonio reducing it into a 19-point deficit by the end) was among the Spurs more lopsided losses in my time watching them, but it somehow felt worse than that. If there’s a juxtaposition to be had, maybe it’s the elevator scene from Drive.

Personally, I was reminded of something that I was once told by a tennis coach of mine. Having taken up the game a few years later than most kids my age, I was struggling to beat opponents 2-3 years younger than myself. Losing is humiliating enough without it happening at the hands of a 10-year-old, so I got a bit down on myself. Tennis is a solitary sport. No coaching is allowed during matches (which can go on for hours) and changes in strategy are the result of self-consultation. When you lose, there’s simply no one else to blame. And I was losing. A lot.

One day that summer it was a bit too much, and after a particularly close loss, I walked off of the court, over to some trees, and cried. And it was there that Coach McLanahan found me. As both of us stood there in our mutual embarrassment, he did me the very great favor of pretending to stare at a tree in the distance while I wiped my face. A former tour-pro, he was polite, soft-spoken, and not easily shaken.

“Are you tired of losing.”

“Yessir.”

“Well, too bad. You’re going to lose some more. Maybe a lot more.”

“Because I’m bad?”

“No, because you’re not good yet. You’re getting closer though.”

“I don’t like losing.”

“That’s good. I can’t help you if you like losing. But you still have to learn how to live with it.”

“Why?”

“Because contending only teaches you how to win. Losing is how you learn who you really are.”

I can’t say that I grasped the merit of that last comment at the time. I found the entire concept to be confusing. But it’s been buried in my mind ever since, and last night it rose to the surface once again. There’s no way of knowing what the twittersphere would have said about the debut of a 19-year-old Tony Parker; the internet as we know it was still so young at the time. But quite frankly, I’m glad I don’t know.

I eventually improved as my coach had predicted. And though I never became a special player, I did learn how to win. Much more importantly, I also learned how to lose. There have been a lot of ups and downs in the Alamo City in the last several years, particularly after such an extended stretch of victory, and I’ve spent much of this season debating and wondering whether this Spurs team can learn how to win. But last night has me wondering if maybe the better question is if this city and its fans can learn how lose. Because if this season is to serve as any indication of who we really are, then maybe it’s not just our favorite sports team that’s struggling with a sense of identity.